by Kari van Wakeren
DURING MY FIRST CALL, I enjoyed leading a Thursday morning Bible study. Because there were many retirees in this lake-country congregation, the study was especially well-attended during the summer months. Conversations were always engaging with participants who hailed from various places and had a wide variety of experiences.
Since each person uniquely heard the story, sharing our reflections brought the story to life in a new way for all of us. Of course, for this to happen, we came to the word with a willingness to hear one another’s perspectives and an openness to what God might be saying. That doesn’t mean that anything goes when it comes to reading the Bible, but rather that, as Lutherans, we believe the Bible is the living word. The Bible always has something to tell us, and our interpretation of a biblical story may change over time—just as we change over time, learning and experiencing new things.
When we do not come with a willingness to hear and learn from the other, things can become pretty tense. Although we may feel we’re defending Scripture, what we often end up doing instead is hurting our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ.
Requests: reasonable and unreasonable
Such was the case when my family traveled back to my husband’s home church several years ago. When we were married, he moved from New Zealand and a church with a more conservative tradition. Shortly after we arrived, we held an evening BBQ for some friends. One of our friends, an elder at my husband’s church, told us they’d be more comfortable if I did not participate in communion during worship the next day since I’m a pastor, and they do not have female pastors in their church.
At first, his request seemed not unreasonable; I knew we came from different backgrounds and viewed certain things differently. However, when we arrived for worship the next day, another elder came up to my husband and disinvited him to the communion table as well. The gist of his reasoning was that they viewed my being a pastor as “living in sin” and my husband as “living in sin” for supporting me in that role.
Crossing a line
For me, the situation had now crossed a line. It was apparent that they had no intention of trying to understand our interpretation. They were only interested in maintaining their own interpretation. And now they were making judgment calls about my inward spiritual life, which they knew nothing about. I was infuriated; my husband was deeply hurt. It took quite a long time for both of us to forgive and move on.
This experience opened my eyes. I believe there is a great deal we can learn from one another. When we read the Bible together, we can learn from one another’s experiences, perspectives, and interpretations. However, whenever we believe our interpretation represents the whole truth, we may be missing the point altogether rather than a corner of it. When this happens, we stop seeing one another as sisters and brothers in Christ and instead start placing labels: good, bad, right, wrong. Whenever we do this, I think we lose out on the power of grace and the power of God’s living word.
The Rev. Kari van Wakeren is a writer and associate pastor of First Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Minn. This blog first ran as a Give Us This Day column, “Many Meanings,” in the April 2018 issue of Gather magazine.
Feature photo by Jim Veneman | Gracious Saviour Lutheran Church, Detroit, Mich. | Lestine Davis and Amanda Porter in Sunday school class.